Conservation and Destruction

30. November 2020

I have found myself in a dilemma in the past weeks.

As a designer working exclusively in the digital medium the combined weight of my creations is pretty close to zero and so is their physical size. My girlfriend however is an illustrator, often working with analog materials — and so our apartment is filled with stacks and stacks of drawings and paintings. They lie flat under the sofa (and the bed), are rolled up in shipping tubes and sketchbooks fill our shelves to the brim. But of course, new drawings are added almost daily and the stacks grow continuously — a long-term solution had to be found.

The obvious way to go would have been to get a plan cabinet, the kind architects and engineers usually use. But those are not only ferociously expensive but also huge, cold, metal beasts. Not exactly something that goes with the style of our apartment. At some point, Sarah stumbled upon a different type of cabinet that has much the same layout of slim, sturdy drawers but is usually made from wood, has a bit of a smaller footprint, and seemed much more friendly and suitable: A type case cabinet. This is the kind of cabinet that was used to store the hundreds of sorts that came with a single font in the age of movable type and letterpress printing. As designers and lovers of good typography, we were instantly smitten. After a couple of weeks of shopping around on eBay, we eventually purchased a beautiful one and had a trucking company deliver it to us. The logistics were menacing.

The type case cabinet used to contain the sorts for “Helvetica” and “Helvetica halbfett”.   
The type case cabinet used to contain the sorts for “Helvetica” and “Helvetica halbfett”.   

But of course, the whole point of a type case cabinet is to store type — not large drawings. And so each of the 14 drawers is divided up into more than a hundred small compartments The classic layout for a type case is called a “California job case”, with 89 compartments. But ours follow DIN 16502 — Germans love a good norm — which clocks in at 125 compartments, accounting for many letters with diacritical marks used in European languages.. Unfortunately, this means the individual compartments are so tiny that unless you happen to be in the business of selling buttons they are hardly usable for anything. We are not — so there is only one way to go: We have to break them out.

Whenever I reflect on sudden changes in the perceived value of objects I quickly come to think of porcelain tableware. I find porcelain especially interesting as a cultural artifact because its history and role in western culture is so complex. It has a convoluted past that has been closely tied to questions of technology, chemistry, and material research; to the tension between handcraft and art (and the move towards nascent mass production); but even more to trade, diplomacy, imperialism To say nothing of the proliferation of coffee and tea in western countries, which themselves are closely tied to colonialism. and power — and through all of these most importantly to wealth and opulence, and therefore inequality. Early on in the history of European porcelain, it was clearly a possession of the nobility, who owned their own manufactories. But its role was changed by the shift in power, both political and economic, to an emerging bourgeoisie. Because of this, porcelain tableware became a symbol first of aspiration Second-rate porcelain is the OG of premium mediocrity., then of prosperity and finally of general respectability in the Bieder­meier middle-class of the nineteenth century: “Porcelain was becoming essential not only to ‘Glanz’ [associated with nobility], but also to bourgeois ‘An­stän­dig­keit’, respect­ability. No ‘gently’ household could do without it.”, writes Suzanne L. Marchand in “Porcelain: A History from the Heart of Europe” (2020, p. 197). Not being able to serve your guests coffee or tea in delicate porcelain was considered a social faux pas.

This influence can be felt well into the mid of the twentieth century when it was still common practice in Europe for young women to bring a dowry into their marriage. It usually consisted of valuable household goods that were collected from a young age: Relatives gave young girls a piece as a present for every festive occasion. The central and most valuable piece of a dowry was of course a porcelain service, with a particular focus on the items used to serve coffee and tee, as these were the occasions where it was most common to entertain guests.

But if we jump just a few decades ahead, to the present day, you are more likely to find this kind of tableware in a student flat’s communal kitchen as part of a chaotic mix of dishes than as the treasured centerpiece of a household. This sudden decline in the importance that was socially attributed to porcelain for centuries happened rapidly. It can be easily observed when you visit a flea market, where stacks and stacks of decorated porcelain tableware are sold for a few dollars apiece. Of course the most precious services are still selling for large sums, but the general decline of porcelain cannot be reneged: Between 2006 and 2014 alone 190 German porcelain firms closed. Even “Meißner Porzellan”, the most prestigious company, had to let go a third of its workforce just this year. It usually comes from house clearances — when the members of the last generation that grew up around these societal expectations die their heirs would rather keep using their own, pure white IKEA plates than inherit ones with a golden bordure and intricate flower decor.

Designers love to talk about “timeless” designs, but most designs that are given the label are from the Bauhaus era — or even more recent “minimalist” (Rams) or “mid-century” (Eames) designs — and are at most a hundred years old. Compare this with the famous “Blue Onion” pattern from 1730, which has been in continuous production for close to three centuries Fun fact: It does not show any onions, but peaches and pomegranates.. Isn’t it ironic that we would clearly classify this as dated even though it was considered delight­ful for a much longer span than any modernist design we call “timeless”? Its perception as kitsch only evolved a few decades ago — your grandma probably thinks it’s very tasteful, your parents probably disagree. This development has been set into motion by modernist designers proclaiming their own works’ timelessness.

In their contemporary context — as a cheap and witty alternative to simplistic modern plates — the tableware is probably being used a whole lot more in accordance with its practical purpose — as a vessel for food — than it ever was before. Because of its high value, it was only used to serve the most distinguished guests and spent most of the time laid out in a glass cabinet to be admired: the role of porcelain tableware was primarily a representative one. Its symbolic purpose was much more significant than its practical purpose. This observation and the hence ill-defined nature of an artifact’s “function” should give pause to any designer.

I think it’s interesting how this contrasts crassly with the labor theory of value, which seems so intuitive on its surface: The more human time has been invested to create something, the more valuable it is. But value is much more complex, not just defined by labor or even “the market” in a narrow sense, but by cultural expectations and customs. A skilled artist spent hours painting delicate patterns on a porcelain plate, but we, as a society, have come to assess the value of a plate by other means than artisanal merit, so their effort is lost. It seems to me that the central reason for this the rapid loss of appreciation and value attributed to porcelain services can be found in the increasing functional differentiation of society, as described by Niklas Luhmann. A clear separation between your private life and your public role[s] means impressing someone with your tableware is much less important than it used to be.

The level of craftsmanship that was put into our type case cabinet is aston­ish­ing. Because of the great demands put on a type case cabinet — an individual metal sort is light, but a font quickly adds up to many kilos — they are extremely sturdy, built from strong, solid wood. The strips of wood that separate the compartments are nailed to the bottom panel, but that’s only to evenly distribute the pressure on it so it doesn’t break. What keeps it all together is a complicated push-fit system: The strips are slid into each other — the largest ones hold the somewhat smaller ones, which hold the smaller ones, and so on. Each strip has several dados “A dado is cut across, or perpendicular to, the grain and is thus differentiated from a groove which is cut with, or parallel to the grain.” into which the smaller ones go and these dados are milled with utter precision — everything just fits together tightly. In each drawer there are more than two-hundred half-blind stopped dado joints. To construct the drawer, first, the outer frame had to be assembled (of course it is held together by box joints), then the already assembled grid of strips had to be slid in from the bottom and finally, the bottom panel could be slid into a horizontal groove to close everything off. The bottom part of the side panels isn’t perfectly straight, but ever so slightly curved, to make it easier to push the heavy drawer back into the cabinet. Because you needed full access to the font you were using, each drawer can be pulled out completely.

It’s hard to pin down when our type case cabinet was made, but it must have been some time in the first half of the last century when printing with movable type was still common. But like decorative porcelain tableware, type case cabinets became obsolete within a few decades, as movable type was replaced first by hot metal typesetting, then phototypesetting and eventually digital desktop publishing. Notice that in this case, it was a second-order effect: It wasn’t the cabinets themselves that became obsolete, but the content for which they were purpose-built.

And so here I stand in front of this great display of carpentry craft, with an alligator wrench in my hand, and break it into pieces. There is no way we can remove the partitions from a drawer without destroying them (they are meant to withstand the force of dozens of kilos of metal, remember?) and there is no way this cabinet is of any use with the partitions inside. Their entire purpose just vanished within a few decades, the last years it stood empty in a dusty basement.

An empty type case cabinet is of no value to anyone, no matter how many hours a craftsperson spent constructing it. The only way to keep the cabinet alive, to conserve its value, is to give it a new purpose — even if that means destroying a part of it.

I appease myself about the havoc I wreck by trying to do the craftsmanship justice, by taking good care of the cabinet. Even though it will be hidden and covered by stuff most of the time, in the spirit of Steve Jobs (back of the cabinet, and all) we are giving the board at the bottom of the drawers multiple sandings and are even wetting the wood in between to get an extra smooth finish. And of course, we are going to keep a few drawers intact, in commemoration of the vanished art of letterpress printing.

The bottom of the drawers is actually plywood. Contrary to that Steve Jobs quote carpenters like to use plywood, because it is actually stronger and more durable than solid wood.   
The bottom of the drawers is actually plywood. Contrary to that Steve Jobs quote carpenters like to use plywood, because it is actually stronger and more durable than solid wood.